Ivan Gonzalez looks like a pilot, sitting across from me. He isn’t in his uniform. There’s no smart hat or gold-plated badge with wings on his lapel. He’s not waving me onboard a 747 with a pair of flight attendants flanking him and everybody smiling. But, even in khaki shorts and a shirt, the mainstay of Florida fashion even in the fall, he looks like a pilot.
And something else – someone at the top of his game. There’s something about the way someone who’s achieved what they set out to do every day for the last eight years sits that makes you aware of how easy it is to be them in that moment. As I get my interview equipment ready, Ivan kicks back on the couch in a ray of Daytona Beach sunshine, tears open a piece of Halloween candy, and he’s all smiles. People passing by wave. Ivan waves back.
It’s the kind of laid back that says “I’ve got everything taken care of,” in a way that you completely believe.
“Are you ready to get started?” I ask.
“Let’s get into it,” he says, balling up a Kit-Kat wrapper and tossing it in the trash can nearby. It goes in without touching sides – everything taken care of.
Tell us about yourself
I’m the first officer on a BeechJet 400XT. I work for a private charter company operating these aircraft, which is what the Beech 400 series is. These are private jets. I started in July of 2010 and, as a first officer, I do basically everything, because the captain just sits there and lets them do everything. But in all seriousness, the real answer is he assists in the flight planning and execution either running the radios while the captain’s flying or, if the captain isn’t flying then I’ll be the one flying and he’ll be running the radios. We alternate.
How much preparation goes into getting to your level in aviation?
Everyone learns at different speeds, but on average it’ll take you several good years start to finish. Besides the actual flying part of it, there’s a lot of book learning. Regulations. The rules of being in the air, what the different speed limits are depending on your altitude, airspace demensions, navigation, weather theory and flight dynamics. You’ve got flight training over several years, written tests you have to study for and pass which are hundreds of question long, so you end up studying for them for several months before you’re ready. These tests charge a fee to be taken and you could end up having to pay again if you don’t score satisfactorily.
When it comes to flying as opposed to driving, there’s a certain mindset. And not everyone gets it. So a certain amount of people start out genuinely wanting to succeed at it, but it’s just not for them. Some people will go out there, get in an airplane and grab the controls, and suddenly realize that they’re just scared to death. The drop outs in this industry, I would say, are most often cases like these – it’s a different thing to be sitting in the back of an airplane as a passenger . A smaller portion than that are people dropping out because they maybe don’t apply themselves. Other people just get in there and embrace it and those are the ones that succeed.
Aside from the status, what are the benefits of this level of success?
The travel definitely is one of them. You’re getting paid to go to different interesting places. This is one of those careers that definitely favor someone who doesn’t mind being away from home regularly. You’re traveling, seeing beautiful cities, and meeting great people – a lot of people.
Before I started this job, the only people I knew were centered mostly around Florida. Now, I have grown my network. I’ve made connections as far as California and Vancouver, up in Minneapolis, Houston, Cheyenne – everywhere! I’ve met people in all these places and have developed friendships with them where, if I’m ever in town, I’ve got someone to hang out and catch up with.
It’s also really neat knowing cities you don’t live in. I can arrive in Dallas or New York, get a rental car, and just go – and I know where I’m going. I used to be a typical tourist, GPSing my way around everywhere. Now I know where I’m going. I’m familiar with these places – I go there often and have found favorite spots to go grab a bite or watch a sunset at. My favorite cities – I would say are Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana.
What’s the most difficult part of becoming a pilot?
Finding the funding to complete your training. It can get expensive – people are leaving medical or law school owing six digits in student debt. Assuming you attend an aeronautical university, you’ll probably leave flight school with a similar bill. The end result, though, is a job that might start off paying a mediocre salary, but that you can grow and advance in to a level where the salaries increase to a point where you end up recouping your losses. Some guys don’t push it and they do alright. Then you see real senior guys, flying coast to coast or transatlantic flights, they’re bringing home over 200k a year and working maybe a week out of the month if they’re at the airlines.
Is this the kind of success anybody can achieve? Do you need a support structure?
Obviously, anything is easier when you’ve got someone supporting you. Does that mean that someone who has no support can’t do it? No – I’m a firm believer that only you can tell yourself what you can and can’t do. If you convince yourself you can’t do something, you’ll never achieve it. If you tell yourself this is something you can do and you spend every day believing that, it might take years but you’re going to get there. You’ll find a way.
But yes, something like what it do takes a lot of time, and if you have someone there to support you in some way, it does make it easier than trying to figure it out on your own as you go.
When I got out of high school, I got into finance. I wanted to be a Wall Street guy. When you look at someone at the height of their career, it’s easy to think that’s just where you want to be. You never think about the training, work, or sacrifice they had to go through to get to where they are. It looks easy right now because they went through a lot of tough schooling and training and put in the sweat to get there and be good at what they do. With finance, I realized it was extremely boring to me. That was just it. I moved from that to meteorology, but couldn’t imagine myself doing that day after day. But I always had this strange fascination with the sky.
I took a couple of flying lessons and instantly realized this is what I wanted to do. There was no question and there still isn’t. To this day it hasn’t lost it’s luster and shine to me – to this day it does not feel like a job.
Does it take a certain kind of person to set a goal like you did, then get out there and make it happen?
I’m definitely a goal oriented person. When I started out in 2010, I may not have known whether I wanted to get into the airlines or corporate aviation but I knew I wanted to fly professionally. Eight years later, that’s what I’m doing, flying professionally. It’s about staying busy – life is long, and you can sometimes feel tired. That’s okay – take a day break to yourself and rest up. But just make sure the day after that you get back up and try again. Don’t let yourself slack off.
To me, success is achieving the goals you set out to achieve. Everyone’s definitions are different. Achieving them is really all you need to consider yourself a success.
If you weren’t a pilot, do you think you’d be as successful as you are in some other industry? Does that kind of drive translate between jobs?
Yes, definitely. Simply because the one thing I knew when I was young, coming up through school and college, was that I wanted to be successful. No offense to anybody who does, but I knew I didn’t want to end up working a minimum wage job somewhere forever. That was just my personal drive. The hard part, from there, was just figuring out what I wanted to do – but I knew I wanted to be successful. My parents came over to this country and they worked hard and made something of themselves having no one here to help or support them or even knowing the english language. Despite that they became citizens, each started up and ran their own businesses for a while, owned two homes, and influenced me to strive to achieve my dreams as I had watched them do my whole life. There was no way I wasn’t going to allow myself to fall short and not do the same in my life.
And, for Ivan Gonzalez, the world’s most cool, calm and collected First Officer, making something of himself turned out to be a simple matter of picking a direction and taking to the skies….